Beyond the Empty TombPastor Lutzer | April 5, 2015
Selected highlights from this sermon
Who should we believe concerning what happens after we die? We should listen to the one person who died and rose again—Jesus. Psychics, mediums, and people who’ve had near-death experiences cannot be trusted. But Jesus can be, and our eternal destination depends on it.
How wonderful it is for us to know that we stand forgiven at the cross. There is a story about a Sunday school teacher who asked her children, “What do we celebrate at Easter time?” And a little girl said, “Well, we celebrate the fact that Jesus was crucified and died.” The teacher said, “Yes, that’s right, but what else? What happened after that?” She said, “Well, on Easter He comes out from the grave, and if He can see His shadow we have six more weeks of winter.” (laughter) She was a little bit confused.
In the next few moments we have a very serious task ahead of us. The task is this – to ask the question, “What lies behind the tomb, or beyond the tomb?” That’s the question. And then the other question is, “How can we find out?” That’s important.
A number of years ago there was a television program on channeling and consulting mediums. I don’t know if it is still on, but the story is that there was a man who said that he could talk with the dead, so people would come and say, “How’s my aunt doing? How are my parents doing?” and he’d give them a message. The problem with that is that there is a great deal of trickery connected with it, but in addition to that, the Bible warns against it, because there are in the atmosphere deceitful spirits who know people who are now dead who knew them when they were alive, and what mediums can sometimes do is to talk to those spirits who impersonate the dead. So I want you to know this. If you get information from the dead through a medium, be assured that you are being told lies.
There’s another way, and that is near death experiences. We have many books that are written that say, you know, My 90 Minutes in Heaven or My 90 Minutes in Hell – whatever. Recently a boy, who wrote a book like that, that sold quite well, confessed that it was basically made up. Not only that, but what we find is that these reports sometimes conflict with one another, and they conflict with the Bible, and they are basically unreliable. You see, what we really need is better information than that.
Now it is true that years ago when people would die, and they died without anesthesia, sometimes they could already see into the world to come. They saw their relatives who were waiting for them. But we need more information than that, and we need a reliable source that we can depend upon, and so today I want to introduce you to somebody who wasn’t just near death, but somebody who was actually dead and is alive forevermore.
My text is taken from the book of Revelation, chapter 1, verses 17 and 18, where we read these words. Now John is in a position of having seen the risen Christ. The description is beyond all comprehension, but I must skip it and get to verse 17: “When I saw him (that is when I saw Christ), I fell at his feet as though dead,” John wrote. “But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’”
There are four facts of Jesus in this verse that I’m going to list for you: that He is eternal, that He was dead, that He is alive, and that He has the keys of Death and Hades. And in the end we shall find the answer to our question of what lies on the other side.
First of all, notice that the first fact is that Jesus is eternal. He said, “I am the first and the last.” Now in the Greek text it says the alpha and the omega. We would say, “From A to Z – I’m everything in between.” This phraseology was actually used of God in the Old Testament for obvious reasons. God is the beginning and God is the end. God was always here, and because Jesus is God, He was always here.
The Encyclopedia Britannica exists in about 30 volumes I think, but all 30 volumes are written with the 26 letters of our alphabet. In the very same way the Bible says about Jesus, “In Him exists all the wisdom and knowledge.” When we come to Jesus we find somebody who is qualified to tell us what exists on the other side because He, after all, is God, and He has an eternal perspective. From everlasting to everlasting, He is God, so we have a reliable source of information. That’s the first fact about Jesus.
And then there’s a second fact about Jesus, and that is He said, “I was dead.” Now maybe you are here today and you ask the question, “How can Christians believe that God died?” Well, of course, God didn’t die. We don’t believe that God is capable of dying, nor do we believe that He died obviously. When the Bible talks about the death of Jesus, you must remember that Jesus was both man and God, so He died in His humanity, but He did not die in His deity obviously.
But why did Jesus come to earth? Why do we have Christmas? Why do we have Bethlehem? The answer is this: He came on a rescue mission to die in our place to make a sacrifice for sins so that you and I could be forgiven. He took our place. You see, there was no way that God could just simply let bygones be bygones and not have a penalty for sin that was paid. But you and I could not pay it because we are sinners, and everything that we do is tainted. And you see, therefore, Jesus came.
I love the story, which I’ve not been able to verify but the point is clear, about a judge in California who was on the bench, and the defendant came for a moving violation. And the fine, let’s say, was $100. So the judge said to him, “Give me $100.” The guy didn’t have any money and the judge had pity on him. So what the judge did was he left the bench, took off his robe, hung it up temporarily, came around and stood with the defendant, took out $100 from his own wallet, laid it on the table, went back, picked up his robe, put it on, stood behind the bench, picked up the $100 that he himself had laid down, and said to the defendant, “Thank you. Your debt has been paid. You go free.”
You see, the fact is that Jesus is both the judge, and He’s the Savior. He’s the one who came to pay our debt. He died. The Bible says He was just but He died for us who were unjust so that we could be brought to God because our sin problem is much bigger than we understand. And God hates sin much more than you and I can possibly comprehend. There was no way we could come into His presence without an adequate sacrifice that He would accept. That’s just the way it is. So the second fact is, the text says, that He was dead.
And then it says that He was alive. And the Bible says, “I am alive forevermore.” Now we get to Resurrection Day. You see, when Jesus was in the tomb there, He was laid there with a body that was lacerated, that had been beaten to pulp and that was obviously dead. Three days later the women come to the tomb and they discover that the stone is rolled away, and Jesus is not to be seen, at least immediately. Later on they do recognize Him, but now He had what we call a glorified body, a body that had continuity with the preceding one but was still very different.
You know, in the New Testament it also uses the illustration of a seed. When you have a seed, a flower, for example, there’d be no way that you could look at that seed and then determine what the flower is going to look like. Now they know what it’s going to look like because they planted it, and there’s a picture on the side of the carton that has the seeds. But, on your own, there would be no way. But there is continuity. There is something in the flower that was in that seed, and in the very same way, Jesus Christ’s new body had continuity.
One day there was a man by the name of Thomas, one of the disciples actually, who began to doubt that the other disciples had seen the Lord. So Jesus revealed Himself to him and said, “Look, Thomas, reach here and touch the nail prints. Put your hand into my side (where there was the wound), and do not be faithless, but believe.” What we find in the Scripture is that God does not mind at all if people have doubts. What He doesn’t like is dishonest doubt. Thomas’s doubt was honest doubt, so when he saw the risen Christ he said, “My Lord and my God!”
As a matter of fact, Jesus even ate fish with the disciples, so you can see here the fact that Jesus really was alive. And even though He had a heavenly body it had continuity with the earthly body. But it also had differences. It had discontinuity. Jesus was able to travel quickly because the molecular structure of His new body was changed, so the Bible tells us that He was able to go from Galilee to Jerusalem, enter through closed doors, and there He was. And we should not think that that is a surprise. After all, He is the creator. He’s the first and the last. And the Bible says, “By Him were all things created both which are in heaven and which are on earth,” so to create a body that is not subject to the same vicissitudes as ours is no problem for Him.
And so Jesus had a different body but it had continuity, and that body also (and this is very important) was indestructible. It is an eternal body. The body was raised from the dead, and the evidence for the resurrection, by the way, is absolutely overwhelming to anyone who is willing to accept it with a reasonable mind. That body is going to be the body of Jesus forever. And He was raised from the dead. He connected with the disciples. He was taken into heaven, and that same body is going to be brought back. So just think about the fact that Jesus said, “I was dead - really, seriously dead. It was not just a near death experience, but I was dead, and I am alive forevermore.” That’s the third fact in these verses.
There’s a fourth fact, and that is, He says, “I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” Wow! Death and Hades! Death refers to the realm of the dying, and Hades the ultimate destination of all those who die, because your spirit will continue after death. What people will see when you are dying in a hospital bed (and once you are dead) is far different from what you will actually experience. Your experience will be something far beyond their imagination because, as we shall see, we do go on and our spirit continues.
But back to the words of Jesus, when He said, “I have the keys of Death and of Hades,” what He meant was authority. Keys represent authority. For example, I have keys here. You know at The Moody Church we have keys that will let you into the building, but that’s as far as you can go. We have keys that will let you into the building and the office areas, and then we have keys that will let you into the building, the office area and even into my study. I was looking at my key this morning and I noticed that it has on it the letter “M.” I assume that means it’s a master key. Theoretically I can open any door in this church. I’ve never tried it. There are too many doors (laughter) but I should be able to. Jesus has the master key to Death and Hades. He’s got the master key. There is nowhere that you can shut Him out. You cannot say that there is a country here where Jesus cannot enter. You can’t even say that there’s a heart that He cannot enter because today He may be entering into your heart, and that might even be a surprise to you as you begin to understand who He is. He is King of kings, and He has the master key to Death and to Hades, and to all other places in the Universe.
By the way, have you lost a child? I believe that all children go to heaven, and there is a story about a man who was in a hotel with his little child, and the little one died. His little girl died, and he went to the cemetery with that little coffin with only him being there and the minister. And at the cemetery they closed the coffin. And then they took the key that locked it and it was given to the keeper of the cemetery. And the pastor said to him, “You think that he has the key to the little casket in which your little girl is, but he doesn’t.” That key is on the keychain of Jesus Christ, and He is the one who someday will open it, and your little one will come to life in the Day of Resurrection. He is the one who has the keys of Death and of Hades.
Now there are certain implications that are incredibly important for us. The first implication is this: Every human being will have to meet the keeper of the keys. Every human being! You may be an atheist, but atheists are not going to be able to get around Jesus somehow. They won’t be able to slip around Him. You may belong to another religion and you may say, “Well, I’m not necessarily into Jesus.” You can’t get around Jesus. You can’t fool Him. You can’t get under Him. You can’t get over Him. You can’t talk Him out of something. You can’t tweak things to make things look good. You can’t undo what He’s going to do. He is King of kings and nobody gets around Jesus either as Judge or as Savior, one or the other, but Jesus stands there and He is the keeper of the keys. So that’s very critical. You may forget about Jesus. You may not regard Jesus, but Jesus will never forget you. The Bible says that it is appointed unto men (and women of course) once to die, and after that comes judgment. We’re talking about serious matters today.
There’s a second thing that is very important for us to understand as an implication, and that is that every human being will be fully conscious after death. Now I want to just clarify things here. When you and I die and our bodies are put into the grave and they begin the process of disintegration (and they do so very quickly), our spirit goes on according to Jesus in one of two places. It continues. In fact, what happens is the soul actually takes on the characteristics of the body, you see, and so it continues. You will be fully alive after you are dead with all of your memories, with all of your attributes in terms of your understanding. It will all be present.
And Jesus said there are two places. One is a place of really terrifying abandonment. Now these are the words of Jesus. He said there will be a category of people to whom He will say, “Depart from me because I didn’t know you.” It’s chilling to think about but the Bible teaches that. The other place, of course, is Paradise, and Jesus opened Paradise for the thief on the cross. The thief said, “Remember me when You come into your kingdom,” and Jesus, who has the keys of Death and Hades said, “Today you’ll be with Me in Paradise.” They both died that day and they met in Paradise. Wow!
But also after that there’s going to be a general resurrection. By that I mean that everyone will be raised – unbelievers and believers. Your body is going to be raised from the dead. Even in the Old Testament this was predicted. This was said very clearly. It says, “Many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to everlasting shame and contempt.” There are just two categories.
Now listen to the words of Jesus. This is taken from John 5 where He said this: “The day is coming when the dead shall hear His voice, and they shall be resurrected, some to life and some to judgment.” Imagine that from the lips of Jesus. Serious matters, to be sure! So the second thing is that everyone will be fully conscious and we must realize what lies beyond the tomb.
There’s a third and final point, and it’s the most important thing that you’ll hear from me today, and that is this: It is your relationship with Jesus Christ that determines your destiny. Your destiny will be determined by your relationship to Jesus Christ. You say, “Well, why Jesus? There are plenty of teachers, and there are plenty of other religions out there.” Here’s why Jesus. It’s because Jesus is the only one who has the qualifications to wipe your sin clean. Prophets can’t do that. Prophets can tell you, “Live this way.” Gurus can tell you, “This is the way to happiness; this is the way to peace.” They can’t take your sin away. And there are some of you listening here who, in your moments of honesty, know that you are a sinner, and something is wrong within and you don’t have peace with God, and no matter what you do (you know you can try it all), the problem is you don’t have a Savior who actually takes away sin, and reconciles us to God in such a way that when we die (and again, this is Jesus speaking) He will say to us, “Come into the Kingdom of My Father that is prepared for you.” What beautiful words that only Jesus is qualified to say.
You know, at this point, there are some people, but not all, who make a huge mistake. They hear a message like this and they say, “Yeah, I think that Jesus is very important. In fact, I want to trust Him.” And the problem is that they add Him to what they are already trusting. For example, there are those who believe that through their baptism somehow they became a Christian, so they say, “Well, yeah, I trust Jesus, but I trust my baptism too,” or “I trust my participation in the Eucharist.” “I trust my good works. I hope that my good works outweigh my bad. I’m trusting that too.”
I want to say this very kindly, but if you are thinking that, the faith that you exercise will never bring you assurance. The best you’ll be able to say is, “Well, I hope I’ll make it.” Why won’t it bring assurance? It is because you just don’t get the message of Christ. You see prophets and religion! Religion is full of rules. Right? Do this, do this, don’t do that. And somehow if you do enough you’ll make it. Do, do, do these things! Jesus says, “It’s done, it’s done, it’s done!” (applause)
On the cross He said, “It is finished. The table is laid. The forgiveness is available and I have to do it all.” My contribution is my sin. His contribution is His righteousness, His forgiveness, and reconciling me to God. And I can do none of that, and the rituals that I depend on can’t do it either.
So once you understand that, Jesus isn’t just necessary for salvation. Thousands of people in Chicago are going to be going to church today and they will tell you that Jesus is necessary for salvation. But what they don’t believe is that Jesus is actually enough for salvation, and that nothing can be added to the completeness of His work that is given as a free gift to those who admit their sinfulness and believe on Him. But it’s all about Him. And then we have the assurance because now it’s not up to my performance. It is up to His performance, which God accepted perfectly as proven by the resurrection of Jesus. It is done! Have you believed in Jesus alone for your salvation?
You know, there is a story about a man. It’s only a parable. It’s a legend, but I like to tell it, because it illustrates faith. He was walking along and fell over a cliff and was able to hang on to the stump of a tree as he was going down. And the legend goes that an angel appeared to him, and said, “Do you think that I would have the strength to catch you?” The man saw the strength of the angel’s arms and said, “Yes, I think you have the strength to catch me.” The angel said, “Do you think I will catch you?” The man saw the smile on the angel’s face and said, “Yes, I think that you will catch me.” And then the angel said, “Look, if you believe that I can catch you, and if you believe that I will catch you, you have to let go.”
That’s faith! You let go of all that you have ever brought to God – all of your works, all of your attempts, all of your resolutions, which have been broken. You bring it all, and you say, “I bring nothing. I only receive the free gift of eternal life.” As many as receive Him to those He gives the authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe on His name. It’s all about grace. It’s not about works.
And when you die that way, when you have received Christ, there’s that beautiful story in the New Testament about Stephen being stoned. Some of you will remember that. As the rocks were being hurled on him, and he was about to die, the Bible says that he looked up and he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father. Jesus was saying, “Hey look, Stephen, I’m here for you. You’ve received Me. You’ve received My love. You’ve received My forgiveness. When it’s all over, you are going to be here with Me in Paradise, and all is going to be good.”
Do you know what the good news is? You could receive Christ even where you are today, even where you are seated because it is a matter of the heart. When I was speaking, did you have something within you that told you that you need a Savior because you are aware of your sinfulness and your alienation from God and your hopelessness? That’s a very good sign, because what it means is that God may be working in your life. The keeper of the keys may be entering into your life and saying, “Trust Me and trust Me alone.”
I’m going to pray, and when we pray you can pray because God sees your heart. Jesus sees everything. Let’s pray together.
Father, we want to thank You so much that Jesus provided the way. We know that the way is narrow, but we thank You that it’s open to everybody. Anyone who desires to believe can believe. And we pray today that many may be believing right now.
If you want to receive Christ (and now I’m speaking to you), just where you are say, “Jesus, this is what I need. I need a Savior. I let go of everything else, and I receive Him as mine.” You tell Him that.
And praise God for the marvelous gift of His blessed Son. Amen.